(Trigger Warning: Depression, Alcoholism, Suicide and Self Harm are discussed).
How do I begin? Depression often has the odd effect of blurring time and recollection. How did it all start, I often ask myself. Could it have been avoided, altered in some way? Maybe. But what happened did happen, and I can’t change that. So, in the words of Robert Lowell, why not say what happened?
I had my first true depressive episode when I was 17/18. Then I had no clue as to what was going on and all of a sudden the world became monochrome, friends and family ceased to be my anchors to the world that they had previously been. To get out of bed or shower required Hurculean effort. My cognitive processes slowed down, almost as if the cogs in my brain had gotten stuck. I’d often stare into space, speechless and motionless. I didn’t have a clue what was going on and very few around me did, and any advice they gave just wasn’t listened to as I was just too far away by that point. At this time I was also sitting my final A Level exams. I sunk and sunk, and I looked out at the world and saw no future at all. One of the most savage elements of depression is that its worst component is also a symptom: the belief that your situation will not improve and that you will only decay more than you already have.
It was as though my senses became simultaneously numb and hyper aware. I could feel little, but at the sight of any criticism or signs of unease amongst friends I winced. I knew the effect I was having on them, and so I isolated myself. It felt like the world kept handing me more and more evidence of why I sucked, why I deserved what was happening to me. I eventually became engaged in CAHMS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) but I was gone. I’d lost myself and only a husk remained. And I don’t mean ‘lost myself’ in some grand spiritual sense, where people simply go travelling to alleviate it. I mean the kind that is absolute agony for the sufferer. The kind where you can’t even remember what you used to be like anymore. You see pictures of yourself and it seems like a different person completely. At its worst stage depression sucks all feeling from you, robs you of yourself, and if left for long enough it comes to define you and possibly kill you.
I was engaging with the local mental health services, but it was as though they were on another planet. I didn’t, or couldn’t, listen. I couldn’t communicate my needs or what was happening as I genuinely didn’t have a clue what was happening. I realise looking back on it that a part of me also resented the fact that it was happening, and that resentment extended to anyone who reminded me of what was happening. I was a silent, brooding, bitter power keg who saw no hope at all. I couldn’t even fathom what hope meant, let alone feel as though it existed.
In this state my concentration completely left me. As someone who is normally a voracious reader, this came as an almighty blow. I couldn’t revise for my upcoming exams, which my entrance to university depended on, so I’d resigned myself to failure. Something that isn’t often talked about, at least in its early stages before it robs you of emotion entirely, is the incandescent rage that sometimes accompanies depression. I had the typical male view at the time, that I should be able to pull my socks up and get on with life as everyone around me did. I was angry at myself, as I literally couldn’t do anything at all. I was helpless, scared and I felt like I’d been marooned on Mars.
Eventually, I got my exams over with. On my eighteenth birthday I saw a psychiatrist for the first time. In contrast to everyone else I saw at that time, he was a great doctor and explained things clearly, that my mood had merely shifted but that recovery was possible, even though it didn’t look like it. This was in July, and, grades allowing, I’d be off to university in September. He said I should start a trial run of anti-depressants, that way we could see if they worked before university was due to start. I knew next to nothing about anti-depressants at this time, and was petrified of them, though I never would have admitted it. I was convinced that they’d permanently alter my brain chemistry somehow, or alter my personality in some way. I just simply didn’t know anything about them, and the unknown scared me to death.
At this point, I wanted out. I decided that no reprieve would come, that all these people around me were simply propping a corpse up, that their efforts were futile and useless. This doctor, however, left the decision of whether I took medication up to me. I was unsure, I said, and needed time to think about it. I’d already made up my mind to run the minute he let me out of his office. I think we made another appointment but I never showed. I’d slipped out of the net. At this time I never really saw the mental health services around me as an aid, rather I saw them as an invasive, intrusive force that wasn’t helping. Whether that was down to them or me being unwilling to accept help is up for debate.
My living circumstances changed, and I figured this ‘blip’ in my life was something I could just forget about. Of course, it’s never that easy, but I didn’t know that then. I took a gap year. I got my grades for my A Levels and somehow passed, to my astonishment. (I still don’t know how I pulled that off). I was convinced that I’d put my friends around me through enough, and convinced myself that the feeling was mutual. I put words in their mouths and cut them off, convinced that that was what they wanted. I isolated myself more and more, and my mood worsened. There were weeks at a time where I’d sit in the dark and not move, unable to move or occupy my mind in any way. The gap year plodded slowly along, and eventually I applied for an English Literature course at the University of Kent. After an agonising wait I got into the course, and my life was moving swiftly on. I’d all but forgotten about my last episode, convinced that it wouldn’t occur again and that I didn’t need medication.
Unease set in quickly. I became convinced that if anything would trigger another depressive episode it would be the transition from home to university. Like a true literature student, I loaded up on all the depressive/manic-depressive poets and authors I knew and waited anxiously. I arrived at university in the September of 2015. After a few months nothing truly occurred, so I let my guard down and led a quite care free life. And, as most students do, I began to drink.
From the first drink I ever took I knew it’d be a problem for me. It gave me a relief from social anxiety and the deep unease I felt, allowed me to be breezy and conversational at parties rather than a nervous mess. There were odd weeks where I’d drink in the mornings, as I just couldn’t face the day without it. The world and my own mind were too treacherous to inhabit without having a shield against them. I’d vow to stay dry for a week or two, then be back at it. However, before the Christmas break, I began drinking more and more. As to why, I only really have theories. A worsening mental state, the daunting prospect of the future, academic debt, acute awareness of my developing alcoholism, worsening grades. Any and all of these things would suffice to explain. I went home for the holidays, but when I returned I knew what was happening. It was happening again. Depression wasn’t done with me yet.
Things progressed quickly from here. I was a drowning man floundering his arms around in any direction, attempting to save himself. I started drinking around the clock, as it was the only thing that gave me any reprieve from the state I was in that time. Obviously, alcohol is a depressant so this didn’t help matters, and merely added to the problems I was having. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of my flatmates, I engaged with the universities support network. I never would have done it of my own accord, as to do that would mean admitting defeat in some way, admitting that I was a failure and couldn’t cope at university as everyone else around me appeared to do. I can’t really convey the agony of that time at all. I described it to a flatmate as being like everything, including me, had gangrene, and all I could smell and see was the stench of it rotting away right before my eyes.
I can’t really convey the agony of knowing that I had to go out, to get the only substance I knew of that worked for me, alcohol. I can’t convey the agony of knowing that I’d be up all night wailing and crying around campus, contemplating suicide, knowing I’d deeply regret everything I’d done the following morning. I’d often wake up with cuts and bruises which I didn’t question. When I was drunk I became far more reckless and impulsive. The sad part is that because university is a culture saturated with alcohol nobody really thought twice about a student’s being in the bar as soon as it opened, all day every day. Nobody really thought twice about the student who wouldn’t stay at the same bar for too long out of shame. Alcohol was everywhere and incredibly easy to obtain. A cognitive dissonance was occurring, as I was acutely aware of the damage that alcohol was doing to my body and soul, but at that point I didn’t care. Any state was better than my default state at that time. I started missing lectures and imposing myself on friends, which then made me feel worse, which then caused me to abuse alcohol again. I was stuck in a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.
At this time to think of anything other than my own death and suicide was pointless and bound to disappoint. As my mood plummeted and the alcohol filled hole I was in deepened, suicide attempts were made. I don’t think I’ll ever forget my flatmates faces as they looked at me after a suicide attempt. Then I could only see the anger, but now I can see the concern they had for their rapidly deteriorating friend too. I couldn’t even do this right, I remember thinking to myself at the time. Everything around me ceased to matter. A miasma descended upon my brain.
I honestly think that people’s expectations of youth and university especially didn’t help matters. People, usually adults, herald university as ‘the time of your life’, that it will never get better than this. So, naturally, if your experience isn’t great or if you become ill you feel as though you’ve thrown away some sort of chance. You find yourself asking yourself, if this is the best I’ll get then what’s the point? What nobody told me however is that it’s okay to have a bad time at university, that it doesn’t have to be perfect. I wish somebody had made that clear to me sooner.
After a suicide attempt I was goaded into visiting the universities nursing station, where you could spend the night and be monitored. I’d spent a few nights there before and it wasn’t too bad, if a little boring. I explained to the nurse on duty that I’d tried to kill myself and didn’t feel very safe, at which point she said, “it’s a bit selfish of you, don’t you think?” Fuck you. I came for help and you give me that. Fuck you. I got up and left in a rage. For the record, I don’t think suicide is selfish. It is an action that is preceded by an unfathomable amount of mental pain. It does cause unimaginable suffering for the sufferer’s family and friends, this is without question. But I don’t think, in most cases, that suicide is done with such a malicious intent. Rather the sufferer often thinks that what they’re doing is altruistic, to the benefit of others around them.
I can’t quite recall how, or when, but I engaged with the medical services on campus. I managed to get myself to my GP, who prescribed me anti-depressants. I walked out shell shocked and numb. Now it was confirmed and real. I was suffering from depression. That was it. It felt like I’d been branded, that everyone could see what my defects were. It felt like I’d been given a life sentence that I’d never recover from. I did what I usually did when I was confronted with uncomfortable feelings, and got drunk. I didn’t ask about alcohol intake, and I kept drinking, which never allowed the anti-depressants to work as alcohol tampers with serotonin levels, the very same levels which a lot of anti-depressants attempt to shift.
Eventually I caused a drunken scene at a university bar. I remember only vague things from that night. I remember vomiting in the university bar’s toilet, which had become a very common occurrence by that point. I vaguely remember withdrawing money from my bank account to buy more booze, as at this point I was spending seventy pounds a night at a minimum on alcohol. Even now I could tell you the price of every drink in every bar in town, I could probably point you out to every bar tender. One thing stands out from that night though. I can remember ordering my usual drink, already drunk having entered the bar a mere thirty minutes before. A girl was stood behind me at the bar, and I turned to her and asked her, “Do you know what a depressive episode feels like? Have you ever had one?” She laughed and said no. Amongst the memories I have, this one makes me the saddest. I was so desperate for someone to relate to me and listen to me that I was willing to talk to a complete stranger. I got my drink and she got hers and I sat back in the corner of the bar alone.
After some time had passed, I texted a flatmate in drunkenly broken English, asking if they’d come and see me. They came and brought mutual friends. I started to talk. I don’t remember what I said but I know I talked about pain and depression. I began to cry and wail and cause a scene. Campus security soon turned up and escorted me off the premises. I panicked and started to scream and wail, pleading with the security guard who had checked in on me earlier in the day that he knew I wasn’t a bad guy, that he knew I was fine. Upon expressing intent to harm myself, (I only know this as it was in doctor’s notes, I have no memory of this), they called the police who subsequently detained me under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. They put me in the back of their car and I was terrified. What was going to happen to me? They were taking me to a safe place, a hospital they said. I arrived at the hospital shortly after midnight. I was lead into a spare room with a single chair, blank, white walls, and a camera in the corner that followed me. The next morning I figured out I’d been detained, and couldn’t leave until I’d been assessed, which would take days, the doctors said, as only two psychiatrists were operating in the county on the weekend. I was livid. The police officers didn’t mention this, they lied to me. Betrayed me. This wasn’t a part of the deal.
Looking out of the meshed windows which I grew familiar with over the days I was detained for, I heard the doctor’s outside deliberating. They’d given me a drugs test, and the results had come back. I’d test positive for alcohol and that was all, this I knew as an absolute certainty. “He’s testing positive for cocaine, cannabis…” I overheard a doctor saying. The list went on. How could this be? Was I so drunk that I’d done these drugs? The thought was too unpleasing and worrisome to brood on. “Wait no, I think this stripe means positive and that one negative?” I hear the nurses say. Great, I think, I’m in the charge of these people and they can’t even read a drugs test. Fan-fucking-tastic. As I expected, I tested positive for alcohol but negative on all other counts.
After days of waiting the time for my assessment had arrived. Days spend staring at a wall and chatting to the occasional nurse who didn’t ignore me as most of them did. I’d been brooding on something as I waited. I’d seen a psychiatrist that was under the crisis team I was engaged with daily at that time, and upon assessing me he said that I didn’t need the crisis team every day, that there was nothing they or he could do for me, and that I was fine. Mere days after this occurred I walked out on campus in my dressing gown and attempted to kill myself from a height. I don’t think I’ve ever hated someone as much as I’ve hated this guy. He didn’t listen to me at all and clearly hadn’t read my notes, as I had to explain everything to him numerous times. The crisis team is often open to problems of miscommunication especially. So, who should walk in to my assessment but the very same guy.
Steam was practically coming out of my ears. I began to shout, I want him out, he’s not assessing me. After much deliberating the nurses relented and ejected him. Victory to the patient. The assessment concluded that I should go into hospital, but ultimately it was my choice to make. They didn’t know where in England I’d end up as there was a rampant bed shortage in the NHS. I said yes. In the day or two it took to find me a bed, I was nervous and anxious as to whether I’d made the right choice, a question I asked myself in regard to any big life decision I’d made up to this point. This time, I knew I’d made a good decision.
I ended up in a hospital in Brighton, arriving, as I did in Suite 136, past midnight. I got a tour, a tea and went to bed. I detoxed, met some wonderful people and took part in therapy. On the most part the care I received was stellar and the nurses were lovely and attentive, and willing to listen. (This isn’t to say it was perfect though). Virtually everything I said, if I pushed, was eventually taken on board. After some weeks of fiddling with the medication I was on, we’d hit the nail on the head. It was working. Slowly my outlook got more positive. Very, very slowly my concentration came back and I was able to read two lines of a book. I felt like I’d climbed Mount Everest when I did that. We (in the hospital) often said that therapy didn’t occur in the scheduled CBT sessions but happened instead when we all crowded together and talked, and I wholeheartedly agree. I met some people that I will cherish for the rest of my life while I was there.
It took some weeks before I got up the nerve to go outside again. The world, I felt, had shunned me and I shunned it. When I did go out on escorted leave we were trying a medication that made me very, very drowsy, to the point of slurring my words. I was walking around and felt like an alien. Did these people know where I’d come from, that I was ‘mad’? Was I truly mad? How did I get here? Can they see the branding on my forehead? That was honestly how I felt and the questions I asked myself.
While I was there, it was brought to my attention that I could be recalled by the NHS, when a bed closer to home became available. A month passed and we were talking about discharge seriously, my time was almost over. I let the thought of being recalled drift to the back of my mind. Then, one night, I got the news. I’d been recalled, and the transport would be there to collect me within the hour. I was devastated and hysterical to say the least, crying that we weren’t finished with treatment, that I was going to be discharged the week after that anyway. It didn’t matter. It had been decided. I made my quick goodbyes, and I was ferried off to a hospital closer to home.
The previous hospital I was in was very calm. We were all pretty much of the same temperament. When I arrived at this new hospital however, it was clear that the game had changed. Here there was no separation of patients, so the depressives would get lumped in with the incredibly violent and volatile patients. As many of us said at the time, how are we supposed to get better if we can’t even let our guard down, relax? I honestly think if I hadn’t done a majority of the work in the previous hospital I was in I never would have recovered in that environment.
After a week or two, I was discharged and I literally ran away from the hospital and towards town and the university. I was free and my life was mine, no longer governed by visitation hours and escorted leave. I got back to university and started asking around about what I’d missed, and I’m slowly but surely catching up on it. When I was discharged I was told to avoid stress, a laughable piece of advice for anyone who is at university. University and the things that depend upon it are stress incarnate, so I came back to the academic world warily, treading lightly. Now I’m catching up on work and doing exam revision, which is frustrating but I’m getting on with it as best I can. I wouldn’t say I’m cured but I can manage my depression more than I could before. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t have bad days. I still do, but they pass eventually, much easier said than believed I know. I’m medicated and happily so.
So why have I written this? Because I believe that it is only through people hearing stories of mental health, and knowing that people they know have suffered from a mental illness, that stigma can begin to erode. It’s utterly absurd that mental health isn’t taken more seriously or treated in the same way as other illnesses. For example, you wouldn’t tell an asthmatic to stop being asthmatic would you?
Young people often don’t have many stories to refer to in regards to mental health, and suffering from a mental illness at any point of your life is a profoundly lonely and isolating experience, let alone if it occurs in someone young such as myself. Mental illness is very, very common, with one in four people who will experience a mental health problem in their life. Mental illness has risen by seventy percent in a generation according to the World Mental Health Organisation, so more stories should be out there. I just hope this helps.
Thanks for reading!